Development projects: Urban research, informal settlements, migration, displacement, gender and the climate crisis

Since returning from master’s studies in London, I’ve worked on a few projects with different UN agencies, and got to immerse deeply with many communities in the process. I’m going to share some memories of my work in this post.

Characterizing informal settlements

In 2021, I became the National Researcher for UNDP’s Philippine study under the programme ‘Leaving No Migrants and Displaced Persons Behind: Integrated Development Approaches to Migration and Displacement among the Urban Poor in Asia and the Pacific.’ I immersed with four communities in Valenzuela City and Quezon City to study how we can characterize informal settlements, as framed by migration and displacement, sustainable livelihoods, resilience and climate change, and urban planning.

For the research, I reviewed international and national policies, as well as development reports to better understand the nexus of so many development themes. Focus group discussions (with communities, local government units, and the national government), validation meetings, and community immersion were all undertaken to characterize different contexts of informal settlements and migrant communities. There were so many learnings, from women’s roles in caring for communities to grassroots community planning and adaptation to climate impacts. While the research is unpublished, the study is meant to be used for further programming work in the country.

Gender mainstreaming and climate change adaptation with civil society

Also in 2021, I became the National Consultant for UN Women’s Training of Trainers under the Empower Project. The ToT aimed to build capacities of civil society organizations working on climate change, resilience, and disaster management to better mainstream gender and development into their work.

We invited with 27 civil society organizations as participants for the ToT. I invited the UP Center for Women and Gender Studies, the Climate Change Commission, the Institute for Climate and Sustainable Cities, CARE Philippines, and the Climate Resiliency Field Schools and Climate Services (RWAN) to deliver lectures. These were about the national framework provisions on gender and climate change, gender mainstreaming in the project cycle (frameworks, tools, analysis and assessment, planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation), and cases of actual programs and projects in the country (agricultural sector, women in crisis and emergency response, and clean energy). It was thanks to our International Consultant in India who prepared the entire manual and training design that I was able to contextualize the training to the Philippine context.

Here’s a screen recording of the Padlet platform, where we uploaded all our ToT resources, from case studies to group exercises, from visual summaries to activities:

And here are the visual summaries of our event learnings:

Nexus of climate crisis and human mobility

As of 2022 — I am currently with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), tasked to write policy recommendations on the nexus of the climate crisis and human mobility. I am also tasked to lead community dialogues in project areas under the project ‘Climate Change Adaptation and Community Resilience in the Philippines’ or CARP. My communities are in Zamboanga City, Cotabato City, and Bulacan. I’m also supporting coordination with local governments across Luzon and Visayas for the project’s training component for next year. I’ll update this section as the work goes along.

Here are a couple of photos I took while going around coastal barangays in Zamboanga City two weeks ago:

To end, here’s a short thought and learning from my work — always be with people and communities and learn from their experiences and needs before conducting ‘planning,’ or writing and recommending ‘policy,’ or doing ‘development’ work.

PAREX: Sacrificing urban vitality for a traffic ‘solution’

In this essay, fellow urbanist April Valle and I criticise the proposed Pasig River Expressway (PAREX) as a means to re-engineer our metro’s fabric for bypass-implant urban development. We also dwell on international precedent projects and strategies that can better and holistically approach the existing city, most esp. the Pasig river environs.

Thank you to Rappler for publishing our work. Read the full article here:

Illustration by Nico Villarete

‘Community pantries are a form of placemaking’

The community pantry movement in the Philippines is a phenomenon, and it’s something I’ve been dwelling on for more than a month. I published the article ‘Community pantries are a form of placemaking’ in CNN Philippines Life, where I dwell on how the movement counters the rigidity posed by pandemic measures in the country.

I’m also fascinated by how much the spaces where the numerous pantries are located. Initially, I created a collage to understand this:

Now, I’m further researching about the pantries and writing about it as a case study for our research project at the Max Lock Centre, University of Westminster.

If you’re also researching about the pantries, some helpful resources include the Saan Yan PH dashboard, the Facebook Group Community Pantry PH, and an article published by the Philippine Sociological Society.

On taking up urban studies and planning at the University of Westminster, London, through the Chevening scholarship

Recently, I’ve been coaching aspiring Chevening applicants and a number of young professionals who are seeking higher studies on urbanism, the built environment, planning, and other themes in urban studies. After a number of conversations, I decided to write about my own experience, and create a simple guide for anyone who needs it.

What’s the difference between studying planning in a developing country and in a London planning school?

I took up an urban and regional planning master’s programme in the Philippines (though I didn’t finish it) and several years later, took up International Planning and Sustainable Development MA at the University of Westminster through the Chevening scholarship. Some of the differences include the educational style, the course structure, and the facilities.

For example: With regard to educational style, in the PH, I got so used to simply submitting a finished paper to get graded, and we receive comments at the end of the course most of the time. In Westminster, there were three or more professors handling one class, and they would coach you and ask for output progress on a scheduled basis. Discussions during progress checks really helped shape the development of papers and design work. I adjusted to that style, and really appreciated a different way of learning.

I also felt relieved at being able to use library systems that allowed access to so many resources, beyond the titles available in the PH. I loved how I could recommend books to our librarian, and he would just purchase the books and have them ready for loans almost immediately. I also loved how easy it was to “study” because everything was systemised: you simply swiped your uni ID to borrow and return books, use the copying and printing equipment (with top-ups and all), and log into the classrooms. (Many take this for granted, but coming from a developing country, oh, the joy.)

I’ll talk more about the courses (subjects) below. But being in an international class definitely helps widen your perspective, and enables you to criticise and even unlearn some knowledge you always thought to be part of ‘planning foundation.’

How did you choose your university? What criteria did you consider?

With Chevening, we were asked to select three universities with respective degree programs. As an urbanist, I was very particular about which city I would reside in, and I had decided from the start to immerse in London. My first choice was UCL, but I only received a Conditional Offer (Chevening requires Unconditional) and since I couldn’t have it changed in time for the scholarship deadline, I went with my second choice, which is University of Westminster.

Researching the program courses (subjects) will give an idea of what your year will be like. Going through the descriptions will help you decide which course to take. In my case, I researched that my course had pathways which I could take, and I was drawn to the spatial pathway because of the courses Public Realm and Sustainable Neighbourhoods.

Also, it also helps to choose a university that is accredited by the RTPI, in case you’re considering a planning career in the UK. Here’s the list of accredited universities and degrees.

What was it like at the University of Westminster – School of Architecture and Cities?

My department is part of the Marylebone campus, which also houses the UoW Business School. The campus is a modern one, and is right in front of Baker Street Station, which connects it to the rest of the city. It’s also a couple of minutes away from Regent’s Park. (Marylebone Village is also pleasant to walk around in, it’s quite posh, being in West London.) The campus was very busy, and I often joked how we needed more homey spaces, like the bean bags in the Harrow Campus. (I only visited Harrow to use the piano rooms of the Music Department.) But I was quite fond of Marylebone campus, the library became a comfort zone, and as uni life goes, I identified its classrooms with excitement.

The MA IPSD is one course under the School of Architecture and Cities. Some of our bigger classes were joined with students from the MA Urban Design, MA Urban and Regional Planning, and MSc Transport Planning and Management. I always looked forward to the plenary courses because I got to catch up with my friends from Urban Design, and we’d have longer discussions due to the many lenses used.

Here’s a short video showing some photos and clips of rooms in Marylebone, Harrow, and Regent’s campuses, as well as my time with friends:

Could you describe some of your subjects, and the type of coursework?

It’s a mix — there are courses where you stay in the classroom and listen to lectures or work on group outputs over a series of sessions, then there are courses that are practical, where you get to go on walking lectures, and literally make London your classroom. Courseworks included analytical, strategic, and policy papers, presentations, and design work.

Many ask me what “international planning” means, and many also assume that since I studied in the UK, I focused on the English planning system. While we did study the latter in the course Planning Skills, we also studied the planning systems of many different countries: Netherlands, Indonesia, Germany, China, India, USA, Spain, France, Belgium, and some cities in Africa. We also worked on projects in Southeast Asia, namely Jakarta and Yangon. We created a regional plan for Cambridge, and worked on borough, neighbourhood and street-level elements in Deptford and Bethnal Green. What’s great about studying all of these planning systems and places is that it gives you an understanding and awareness of what you are already familiar with. It also gives an appreciation of what works and what doesn’t in different contexts. For example, the planning system in the Philippines is ‘comprehensive land use’ (zoning and permanency) which contrasts with the English planning system, which is discretionary in nature (changes are always debated). There’s so much that goes into the history of these systems, and how they work today.

Then of course, there are the Research Methods and the Dissertation modules. We were given the option to work on a full thesis or a design thesis, and I opted for the first. Read my thesis here. You could also check out our graduate exhibition, MORE 2020, to see the scope of research projects in the Department.

There’s so much more to the courses, but just to give a visual of our work, here are a couple of outputs and photos from sessions and field work:

My professor, David, he gave me a tutorial on the urban design process. It’s about removing all barriers and elements from what we see and feel, reflecting, finding what feels right, exploring, creating and keeping the elements we find meaningful in the end. But you’d have to work on the process: one sketch, then another, and another, and a hundred more, layered, on top of all the old sketches, until you find how you’ve come up with an entire form, a “new” creation, but brought the process of learning with you. I thought I was just learning about urban fabrics, but what he really taught me was a life lesson.

I fondly remember the times we used to stay inside the library study rooms to work on group outputs after class. In this photo, we were reviewing street elements and strategising about connectivity in Deptford.

What were the challenges you encountered?

What I struggled with the most is my design work. I am not a designer by education or training, I’ve always leaned more on the social side of planning, and my strength is in writing. So when I decided to take the spatial pathway of my course, I was so nervous. But then — learn as much as you can, and improve yourself, right? My professors and friends helped me get through. At the end of my course, I already enjoyed designing so much.

Working in a group is given in planning. While I was blessed to have friends in my group work most of the time, there were also some challenging moments with other classmates, especially with contrasting viewpoints (it was usually about finding balance between right and left). Some difficulties were also due to the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic struck in our second semester, so some students had to fly home immediately, and we had to work across timezones, adjust, and take care of our mental health. Even some of our professors struggled transitioning to online classes at first, but I’m just grateful that they still found the time to provide one-on-one tutorials with everybody. We were also supposed to fly to Izmir, Turkey to immerse with a community, but that got canceled. That was too bad, because our class was looking forward to it after the entire year.

What would be your advice for aspiring planners who would like to take up studies about the city under the Chevening Scholarship? What lessons could you impart?

  1. Be open-minded. I went to London with a view set on studying the public realm because of my interest in placemaking, but after studying for a year, I realised how drawn I was to topics in urban sociology and theory, so I shifted my thesis closer to that instead.
  2. Build a good relationship with your dissertation adviser, your professors, and friends. After uni, my course leader invited me to be part of a research group within our department, which is amazing, because I used to just read papers and cases of the research group during class. And now I’m part of it! I’m also still in touch with my thesis adviser (who is simply the epitome of kindness and professionalism), and I continue to learn about urbanism through another professor’s Instagram.
  3. Learning in London is not confined to your university, so attend public lectures in other unis (in my case, I attended several lectures hosted by LSE SEAC and the Bartlett), and my best friend was kind enough to tour me in her undergraduate uni, so I was able to visit the incredible design studio of the University of Greenwich.
  4. Walk the city! Planners should immerse more, really. Sketch and take photos while going around. Observe people’s behaviour. Observe the contrast of buildings and spaces. Take note of your feelings when in a particular place.
  5. Utilise the libraries and the conducive study spaces. In London, those were present almost everywhere, which allowed me to ‘study-hop’ whenever I felt like it.

Other resources

There are also awesome blog posts and videos by other Filipino scholars, which you should definitely check out:

  1. Rogerine Miguel was in my cohort and was one of the social media ambassadors during our year. Check out her YouTube channel.
  2. Tanya Quijano is also an alumna of the University of Westminster, and her blog, In #BriTanya, is a great guide on student life: read her tips on budgeting, traveling, exploring, and a lot more.
  3. Renee Karunungan shares preparation tips for Chevening applications in this blog post.

If you have more questions, feel free to post them as comments, and I’ll answer them when I can.

Bonne chance!

On women and the Philippine city

This has been a long time coming in my mind, but I finally found courage to write it. Leslie Kern’s Feminist City really resonated with me when I read it a year ago in London, and now that I wade through Philippine cities and battle with patriarchal space, words just came out pouring, and I finished writing this in a few minutes. CNN Philippines Life published this in time for International Women’s Day, and within two hours of this being online, I received so much “Me Too” feedback on having to find clean public bathrooms while menstruating, keeping safe at night, and just generally, making it as a women in the urban, patriarchal jungle.

Read my essay here, and I’d love to discuss how we can improve cities to cater more for women and girls.